Sunday, August 9, 2009

Considered Forthwith: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Welcome to the 19th installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies.

Even though Congress is out of session and the members are back home getting shouted down and physically assaulted by lobbyist-funded mobs of teabaggers, there are still a few things going on in the committees. This week, I will look at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has two field meetings (in Alaska and Colorado) scheduled this month.

Here are the members of the committee:

Democrats: Jeff Bingaman (NM), Chair; Byron L. Dorgan (ND); Ron Wyden (OR); Tim Johnson (SD); Mary L. Landrieu (LA); Maria Cantwell (WA); Robert Menendez (NJ); Blanche Lincoln (AR); Bernard Sanders (I) (VT); Evan Bayh (IN); Debbie Stabenow (MI); Mark Udall (CO); Jeanne Shaheen (NH)

Republicans: Lisa Murkowski (AK), Ranking member; Richard Burr (NC); John Barrasso (WY); Sam Brownback (KS); James E. Risch (ID); John McCain (AZ); Robert Bennett (UT); Jim Bunning (KY); Jeff Sessions (AL); Bob Corker (TN)


As suggested by the committee's name, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee generally oversees American energy policy and policies related to most non-military public lands (mainly those lands held by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service). Some other issues under the purview of the committee include Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Native Hawaiian matters, nuclear waste disposal, territorial claims including matters related to Antarctica, preservation of prehistoric sites, and irrigation. A full rundown of the jurisdiction of the full and subcommittees is available here.

This committee assignment is particularly attractive to Western Senators since most of the American public lands are in the West. Here is a map showing the BLM land holdings. This .pdf file shows the total public and private ownership of U.S. forests. Note that this also includes state-owned forest lands. This map shows percentages of land owned by the Forest Service by state. Finally, this one shows the percent of each state's area that is owned by the federal government.

As a result, the committee tends to be rather non-partisan and more interested in regional interests rather than party ones at least on land and resource extraction issues.

A Sustainable "Cash for Clunkers" Program

After seeing the success of the Cash for Clunkers program, Committee Chair Bingaman and Senator Olympia Snowe have crafted a bill to revise the program and make it a long term policy. S. 1620 would revise the tax code to offer tax credits or instant rebates to anyone purchasing a car or truck that exceeds CAFE standards for that automobile's class. The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee since it primarily deals with revisions to the tax code.

Sure, it is essentially a middle and upper income tax cut since those people will be the ones most likely to buy a spiffy new fuel efficient car. It's also a market incentive to the car companies to turn out more fuel efficient automobiles. This is one of those bills we should track, analyze and push forward if it seems viable. .

Upcoming Hearings

Energy and Natural Resources only has two hearings scheduled during the August recess. On Aug. 22, they are meeting in Alaska to discuss the impact of renewable energy production on rural areas. Murkowski is hosting this hearing at Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks which opened the state's first geothermal power plant in 2006.

The other hearing will be a meeting of the National Parks Subcommittee on Aug. 24. They will learn about the impact of global warming on Colorado's national parks. The meeting will be held in Board Room of Town Hall, 170 MacGregor Avenue, Estes Park at 1:30 p.m. if anyone is interested. And yes, Mark Udall of Colorado is the subcommittee chair.

Cap and Trade

Also known as the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, the bill was reported out of committee in July. However, I cannot find a mention of the actual Cap and Trade program in the Senate version. The program is specifically discussed in the House version. On the other hand, there is a lot of other interesting stuff in the Senate bill including carbon sequestration, incentives for green buildings and alternative energy production, and nuclear waste disposal and recycling. Here is some information from the committee on the bill. The good news for Cap and Trade proponents is that adding Cap and Trade by amendment is easier in the House than the Senate.

Committee History

This is a very abbreviated history. Use this link for a more complete committee history.

Americans have always held land ownership in a regard approaching religious conviction. Land ownership is part of the American dream. Indeed many European colonists and later immigrants (notably the Irish immigrants) saw the New World as the key to escaping feudalistic systems in which peasants worked land owned by wealthy landlords. Indeed, purchasing a house and a small piece of land is among the first priorities of American newlyweds.

At this point, it seems appropriate to point out that much of the land on the North American continent was stolen from the Native Americans who already lived here. Even land that Europeans "purchased" like Manhattan Island was bought for a pittance. To dispel a few myths, the original purchase was for some useful trade goods worth 60 Dutch Gilders, equivalent to about $1000 today. There is also some evidence that Peter Minuit negotiated the purchase with a tribe that did not even live on the island.

The first major land annex in American history was the Louisiana Purchase from France for $15 million, equal to about $213 million today. Contemporary opposition to the deal aside, the federal government had done a major land deal and doubled the size of the country. Almost immediately, the federal government felt the pressure to open the land to settlement. It should go without saying that the settlement was by White people at the expense of Native Americans who had called the land "home" for millennia.

The Executive Branch General Land Office was created in 1812 to oversee the distribution of Western land. This was also the era of the rise of the committee system and the Senate Committee on Public Land was created in 1816 to take the lead on federal land policy. Depending on the policy of the day and the land, settlers brave enough to leave the relative safety of the Eastern Seaboard could own homesteads cheap or free. For one thing, the nation had an interest in populating the land. For another thing the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent land "acquisitions" (Mexico probably has a different perspective on the issue) were done with public resources (i.e. taxes), so American citizens were certainly entitled to a piece of the land.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the beginnings of land preservation as the federal government started to set aside lands that would not be distributed to individuals. Instead that land was set aside for public use and included forests, open spaces, and managed parks (including historic sites). Around the same time, some states established their own forest systems. This raised still unresolved questions over how much access to public lands should be afforded to individuals and ranchers as well as business interests like loggers, miners, and natural gas and oil drillers. It should come as no surprise that the Libertarian Cato Institute would like to see much of the public land privatized.

In 1921, the committee was renamed the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys after gaining jurisdiction over geological surveys. Following World War II, the committee gained jurisdiction over trust territories awarded to the United States following the defeat of the Japanese Empire. In 1948, the committee was again renamed the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs with jurisdiction over both public lands and the mineral rights to those lands. In addition, the committee had jurisdiction over the process of awarding statehood to Alaska and Hawai'i.

By the 1970s, the link between mineral extraction and environmental degradation became clear. Meanwhile, the oil embargoes exposed the country's (still unresolved) strategic vulnerability of reliance on foreign energy sources. In 1977 the committee became the modern Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The realignment confirmed the committee's role in American energy policy, but took away most of its responsibility for policies related to Native American affairs.


The jurisdictions of the subcommittees are listed under the main jurisdiction link above. However, here are the four current subcommittees and leaderships. As with many other committees, the chair and ranking members are ex-officio members of the subcommittees.

Energy: Maria Cantwell is the chair and James E. Risch is the ranking member.
National Parks: Mark Udall is the chair and Richard Burr is the ranking member.
Public Lands and Forests: Ron Wyden is the chair John Barrasso is the ranking member.
Water and Power: Debbie Stabenow is the chair and Sam Brownback is the ranking member.

That's it for this week. I will be at Netroots Nation next week, so the chances of posting Considered Forthwith next week is minimal.

For more about other committees, check out my previous work:
Senate and House Armed Services Committees
Small Business Committees
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming
The Committee Primer
House Education and Labor Committee
Senate Finance Committee
Senate HELP Committee
Senate Judiciary Committee
House Energy and Commerce Committee
House Ways and Means Committee
House and Senate Appropriations Committees
House Intelligence Committee
House Judiciary Committee
House and Senate Ethics Committees
House Science and Technology Committee
House Financial Services Committee
House Rules Committee
The Role of Committees

Crossposted on Daily Kos, Docudharma, and my own blog.

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